Rio Grande is the final chapter in John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy. It is less of a continuous narrative, held together instead through the maintaining of a similar spirit as well as analogous thematic elements and characters. Much of this must be attributed to Ford and Merian C. Cooper who produced the pictures through their Argosy Pictures label. Furthermore, much of the director’s stock company makes a showing as per usual headed by John Wayne as Colonel Kirby Yorke.
While, to some extent, the earlier picture Fort Apache was also about the sometimes prickly marriage between duty and familial obligation, it was all but thrown to the wayside in the end. In other words, the maniacal resolve of Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), as a military leader, took precedence over his relationship with his daughter (Shirley Temple), which in itself was a statement.
However, one could claim Rio Grande is a simpler picture with far less complicated aspirations in its own attempt to examine alienated families. To get a grasp of the scenario, three figures must be brought to the fore. Colonel Yorke (Wayne) is stationed on the Texas border tasked with defending folks from raids instigated by belligerent Apaches. But such a lifestyle can be difficult on relationships and Yorke has long been estranged from his wife (Maureen O’Hara) who has never quite forgiven him for numerous past grievances in their rocky courtship.
We find out in passing they had a son together though Yorke hasn’t seen the boy for years and he’s surprised to find out his own son flunked out of West Point for failing arithmetic. The next big shock comes with the new class of recruits, requested by Yorke to aid in keeping up defenses against the onslaught of Indian raids.
One of the recruits just happens to be his son Trooper Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), who by no decision of his own has managed to wind up at his father’s outpost. From their first reunion, both men make it clear there will be no favoritism or show of kinship. As far as both sides are concerned, it’s duty first and they hardly know each other anyway. There seems little need to start now.
The picture does have some lively idle chatter in the background provided by the ever boisterous and larger-than-life Irish teddy bear Victor McLaglen tasked with getting the new recruits up to snuff. Aside from Trooper Yorke, he is befriended by Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) and southerner Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) who both prove their aptitude in taking on jumps in the manner of the Ancient Romans. Music is also integral to the life of a cavalryman in tents or around campfires, in the form of ballads or down-home toe-tappers. Song follows them everywhere.
But the moment of greatest import arrives with Mrs. Yorke as she pays a call on her husband and comes to fetch her boy. She plans to take him back home with her by buying him out and removing him from the life for good. It’s full of contentious and complicated feelings. But what we realize is there still is a fleeting love between the couple. They are on the receiving end of an after dark serenade from the Sons of the Pioneers and Kathleen notes Kirby has grown more thoughtful with age.
Still, there’s no denying his inherent sense of duty that has left a path of destruction, both physical and relational. After an abrupt nighttime raid, Yorke resolves to send the women and children within the encampment away to safety, except they too get ambushed en route. The children are abducted. He has some choices to make. A countermeasure is now in order to extract the children from the enemy.
It’s very much a concrete objective and yet taken in light of what has already transpired, we can easily see this act of necessitated bravery being tied closely to the roots of family identity. What we are willing to do for our sons and our wives or to make our parents proud? All of these issues come under scrutiny and must be resolved in a tangible way.
When everything is said and done, Wayne and O’Hara together are what does it for me. We leave them grinning from ear-to-ear as O’Hara playfully spins her parasol next to her man, newly reunited. There’s something electric surging between them — that intangible whats-it all the great screen couples were imbued with.
Though smaller scale and relatively compact, Rio Grande is no less a western from John Ford. One might concede Ford was going through the motions as he had compromised and made this picture solely so he could realize his next passion project The Quiet Man (1952) (also starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and Victor McLaglen). As they say, the rest was history.